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The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth

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In their illuminating account, Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker chart the evolution of the seaside from a wasteland at the margins of civilization - when "exotic" meant remote and terrifying - to its present role as a staging ground for escape and recreation. Embedded in the story are the histories of sexuality, health, fashion, and sport, as well as accounts of the development of beach architecture (and beachwear, naturally) and the rise of the great resorts, whose very names - Brighton, St. Tropez, Newport, Miami Beach - are synonymous with pleasure. The beach is also where Columbus, Cook, and Bougainville first set eyes on the "other," where the D-Day troops invaded France, and where the first postwar atomic bomb was exploded. Discover how the beach has become the symbolic place where each wave of inhabitants can make real its own idea of paradise.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
A History of Paradise

When I was a kid, growing up in New York City, I spent 50 weeks of the year waiting for the two weeks we spent at Seaside Heights, New Jersey, every summer. Those two weeks were magical. The beach and the water, the girls, the frozen custard and sausage heroes, the girls, the boardwalk and the pinball machines, the girls, the rides and games. Did I mention the girls? The whole experience was beyond time and place, beyond reality. It was paradise on earth.

Over the years, I've "collected" a lot of other beaches, from Bávaro Beach in the Dominican Republic to Bundoran, County Donegal, in Ireland. I've also collected a long shelf of books about beaches and the history of beach resorts, but The Beach: The History of Paradise of Earth by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker instantly became one of my favorite books on the subject.

The Beach is a serious book about a fun and fascinating subject. The authors, who are married, are no air-headed beach bums. Lencek is a professor of Russian at Reed College and Bosker is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Yale. They're serious people. But they know where the fun is.

And they know an awful lot about beaches and how they got that way. They begin at the beginning...the very beginning, with the lands and the seas forming on the planet, with wind and wave wearing away at rock and eventually forming sand. Did you know that the sand at Miami Beach, as shown by radiocarbon dating, averages 13,000 years old, with some material in it as much as 30,000 years old?That'sancient history you have there between your toes.

While going to the beach for sun and surf seems the most obvious and natural thing in the world to us, it wasn't always so for our ancestors. Through most of history, the place where land and sea meet was viewed as sinister and threatening, a wild place at the edge of civilization, and often a place where wars were won or lost. Our concept of the beach is relatively recent, and Lencek and Bosker chronicle the history of events and the evolution of attitudes that brought it about.

Along the way, they also provide details on the people — from Ponce de Leon on the Florida coast to Coco Chanel on the Riviera — and the history of hotels and resorts, fashion and swimwear, social customs, sports, ecological awareness, casinos, tourism — everything, in other words, that has affected the story of the beach or been reshaped by it.

For good measure, the text is liberally decorated with wonderful illustrations of everything associated with the beach — touching, nostalgic, and often funny photos, cartoons, paintings, ads, and posters, all depicting the wonders and leisurely pleasures of life at the shore. And they're all right there on the page, where they belong, not in separate sections. It's actually a lot of work to do this, and all praise to the publisher for doing it right. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.

I can think of a couple of things I would have liked to see mentioned here that aren't, like Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, where beach culture is an integral part of the city's life, but maybe I'm just crabby because I haven't been to the beach for a while myself.

The Beach was published in the summer, no doubt intended as beach reading. Now, with winter coming on, I think it's even more entertaining and thought-provoking.

To tell the truth, it makes me want to go to the beach.
— Alan Ryan,

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lencek and Bosker ("Making Waves") have turned out a thorough but often leaden chronicle of what "the beach" has meant to humankind from Roman nobles to WWII assault troops to modern eco-tourists. Their scholarly approach seems tedious in service of a normally lively subject. Details noting coastal zoning laws enacted by the ancient Greeks and England's priggish turn-of-the-century approach to public bathing are interesting, but the story gathers momentum only in contemporary days. Accounts of America's iconographical retreats are noteworthyConey Island, Miami Beach, Southern California, Hawaii are covered, as is the evolution of swimwear: "The swimsuit on the beach tells the square-inch-by-square-inch history of how skin went public in modern times." But the authors become highhanded, bemoaning the fallen status of the modern beach vacation; ecotourists are part of a "highly contrived ritual," while luxury travelers are "entirely divorced from nature." Still, the authors see fit to include such resorts as Cancun's Ritz-Carlton in their appendix of recommended beach stays. Waves, sand, bikini babes, surfer boys, sun-worshipping hedoniststhere is enough material here for a bit of fun in "the history of paradise on Earth," but this treatment turns out to be disappointingly dry.
Library Journal
Lencek and Bosker are professional academics (of Russian history and clinical medicine, respectively) who write informative books on popular culture for a mass audience. Their latest contribution to cultural studies focuses on the different roles that the beach experience has played in shaping, and sometimes defining, the consumption of leisure. "The sensations of the beach are as primary as life itself," they argue. "We are drawn to the beach to return to our conscious mind the sensation of the body--not in the private, compartmentalized world of bath or boudoir...but at the infinitely creative junction of elements where habit and convention dissipate and imagination once again takes over." Their coverage of beach consumption is nothing if not exhaustive--their survey of "paradise" ranges from the geological formation of beaches and the function of beaches in the ancient world to the differential status of beaches in the 20th century and the use of beach imagery in the youth movies of the 1960s. This would be an obvious choice for anyone who wants to take a serious book to the beach; it is also a valuable addition to the literature on the cultural politics of leisure-time activities.--Kent Worcester, Marymount Manhattan Coll., New York
NY Times Book Review
...[An] entertaining, handsomely illustrated book [that is both] scholarly and briskly good-humored.
Kirkus Reviews
A husband-and-wife team of popular-culture experts provides a lively celebration of the beach, "nature's most potent antidepressant." Lencek ("The Antic Alphabet", 1994) and Bosker, professors of Russian and medicine, respectively, who live in Oregon, are clearly in love with beaches. In this, their latest in a series of popular-culture studies (including one on bathing suits), they have transformed their unabashed passion for sun and sand (or rocks, as it may be) into a romp through the history of beaches, from their ancient geological formation to the environmental and commercial dangers that threaten them today. Along the way, they explore sexuality, sport, architecture, and fashion at the beach. At the heart of their historical narrative is the premise that the beach as we know it today is a recent phenomenon. Here we witness the beach's gradual transformation from a hostile wilderness, site of conquest, commerce, and tribal practices, to a civilized recreation site. Throughout, the historical narrative is limited to Western cultures, primarily American and European. Chapters often begin with fictional tableaus that lend an intimate feel to the narrative. Throughout, "The Beach" is filled with fascinating illustrations and photographs of the once-popular bathing machine, assorted swimsuit styles of the past (including the first adhesive brassiere!), and the "Tan-O-Meter," a gas-pump-shaped tanning-oil dispenser. But for all their mirth, Lenþek and Bosker are serious about the beach's role in history and its appeal to the human imagination. In the end, they argue, "it is to the beach that we go to reinvent ourselves." For those readers unable to resist the beach's appeal, theauthors include a highly select list of the world's hottest and fanciest beach hotels and resorts. Those who ordinarily bike or walk to the local beach will find pleasure and novelty in "The Beach", but they'd better look elsewhere for seashore recommendations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670880959
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 6/1/1998
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Read an Excerpt


My love affair with the beach began during the buoyant and serene Eisenhower years. Almost every day of summer during my childhood in sun-splashed Trieste, we made a pilgrimage from our urban apartment to the beach. Among the handful of cheap diversions available during those lean years, seaside bathing was by far the most affordable. And, of course, the most pleasurable. My mother packed us a marenda, or snack, of mortadella-filled panini, slipped rubber flotation rings like bandoliers across our chests, tucked the latest issue of Annabella into her basket, and off we would go for another adventure by the sea.

    reaches of Trieste's long, thin crescent, inserted into the narrow lip between stark limestone hills and the sapphirine Adriatic. For the price of a few hundred lire, we could ride the tram out to the end of the line, then walk a half-mile or so along the shore in the coruscating sunshine--our feet getting hotter and hotter with each step--before arriving at a sparsely populated beach. The umbrella pines and palms that had been planted with Hapsburgian precision along the waterfront a hundred years earlier offered an efficient rhythm of cooling shade.

    footprint of its changing rooms--men on the left, women on the right--resembled Mickey Mouse's ears. There, we were guaranteed private changing stalls, the chalky feel of weathered concrete beneath bare feet, and, best of all, the inexhaustibly diverting spectacle of lush signorine in bikinis and cork-soled mules studiously ignoring the sexual incantations of Latin males. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the beach was reserved for women, and we could swim without worrying about being teased by obnoxious boys. One summer my mother made a sensation in a Jantzen "Wonder Girl" swimsuit the color of ripe raspberries.

    shifting temperament of the beach, the tides, and the moods of the sea, sequentially unfolding from dawn to nightfall--remains indelibly fixed in my mind. The beginning of each day was the time to enjoy the morning's cool, limpid sea and its underwater secrets--pebbles, sea anemones, undulating seaweed, and the blue-green flashes of iridescent fish--clearly visible in the raking light. And then, with the mounting heat, the sea would grow opaque and mysterious, its surface specular in the stillness of noon. When the interminable torment of the siesta's sixty digestive minutes had elapsed, my sister and I would bolt into water that the interval had transformed into liquid sapphire. The waves closed in around us with the density and snugness of a thermal blanket. Our parents slept while we floated on our backs and played at being shipwrecked. Tiring of that, we lured fish into pools dug out of the grainy sand. Then, sneaking up behind my father, we popped the air bladders of seaweed, letting the water drip on his reddening back until he jumped up in mock fury and chased us into the waves. By then, Mother would have joined him, and we'd watch the two of them swim away, far beyond where we dared to follow, where our feet no longer met the reassuring solidity of sand.

    prepare me for the beaches of America. We arrived in New York Harbor in 1956. On board the U.S.S. Constitution, we had sloshed in the pocket-sized swimming pool and waved madly at our liner's sister ship, the U.S.S. Independence, when she passed us in a blaze of fireworks on the Fourth of July. The coincidence seemed portentous. New York City was a blur, and so was the long train ride to Chicago with its hilarious first impressions: beer in a can! convertible seats! monster cars! Then came the Windy City, where my father had come to study at the University of Chicago. It was July 10 when we arrived, and the heat and humidity were infernal. It took us only two weeks to find our way to the beach.

    at the edge of downtown's Gold Coast stood in stark contrast to what I had known in Europe. The water of Lake Michigan was not salty, buoyant, or, for that matter, refreshing. And there were alewives by the million, wriggly little fish that propagated like locusts and washed onto the shores, making them impassable and malodorous. The sand felt like dust. It also heated up, so that walking barefoot was impossible. The long stretches of shore attracted vast hordes, who came equipped with all the conveniences of home, as though in this age of conspicuous consumption they dared not venture into nature without the appurtenances of comfort to which they had become accustomed. There were ice chests of colossal proportions, folding tables and chairs, recliners and umbrellas, badminton nets and rubber mattresses, baby cribs and geriatric walkers, record players and radios, and, of course, portable barbecues. Combined with the heat, the unremitting swish of traffic on Lake Shore Drive, the sticky smell of searing meat, the cacophonous cocktail of rock and roll, polka, blues, shrieking children, and shouting adults, the atmosphere was nightmarish.

    in Wisconsin's Door County. Joining forces with another family, the Van Dongens, we rented a white cottage with a screened porch overlooking the pristine, sandy shore. It was beach living at its landlocked, Midwestern best: barbecues, boating, water-skiing, and, best of all, swimming at every hour of the day and night. The days were hot and humid and the water temperature settled at a very comfortable seventy-four degrees. We swam together as a family almost every day, ate on the patio, and walked along the beach at sunset. Except for the Brobdingnagian mosquitoes, life was pretty much irritation-free. We lived in our swimsuits, even at night, when the temperature and humidity would still hover at the ninety/ninety level. We gathered around the grainy transmissions of a Zenith TV to watch Dobie Gillis and 77 Sunset Strip. Like so many other nuclear families, we embraced the emotional stability offered by the Ozzie and Harriet decade.

    far cry from the elegant swimwear I saw on the shores of Italy--I was traumatized by them. In my view, no single item of fashion so thoroughly diminished the physical status of the American male. Though my father remained loyal to the skimpy European brief, all the other males of our acquaintance sported huge, boxer-short-style trunks that weighed in at twenty-five pounds when wet. Mr. Van Dongen himself owned three pairs, not because he was a man who indulged himself, but because it took about three days for a pair of industrial-strength trunks to dry, even under the hot sun. From a fashion standpoint, these suits did nothing for the human torso. Wet, they clung to the thighs, as if they had been glued on or, even worse, vacuum-sealed.

    in the writing of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At the beach, Lindbergh writes in Gift from the Sea, "one is forced against one's mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore." In the final analysis, this was why I returned to the seashore with loved ones--and, eventually, my child--year after year. "Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules," wrote Lindbergh. "One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today's tides of all yesterday's scribbling."

    always been part of what drew me to the wild Oregon coast. On countless occasions, as I headed south on U.S. Highway 101, I would stop the car at a bend high above a swath of sand dotted with craggy monoliths and strain to hear the ragged roar of sea lions through the dull rumble of waves far below. Offshore, twice a year, whales blow clouds of steam, and the odd bald eagle circles warily, ever on the lookout for prey.

    ball. In fact, so eclectic are the topography and climate of the seashore that individual beaches could be grafted onto the wildly varied coastlines of twenty different countries across the world. In early spring, as the fog rolls in from the ocean, you may find yourself driving south from Cannon Beach through Arch Cape, Rockaway, and Netarts, groping your way from one tiny hamlet to another. At least once each winter, in almost every coastal outpost, ominous thunderheads coalesce in the sky. Surreptitiously, as if they had a mind of their own, clouds nestle against the Coast Range and drop torrential showers that produce rock slides and wash away roads. But in the bloom of summer, the coastal complexion changes dramatically. The blazing sun clarifies the atmosphere, and beaches from Seaside to Cape Blanco are kissed by briny offshore breezes. Whether hunting for gemstone treasures or glass floats at Agate Beach, digging for clams near Rockaway, or casting for shad or salmon near Coos Bay, one cannot help being intrigued by the face-off between land and water on the Oregon coast. Here, two titanic forces--one stationary and one in motion--engage in eternal dispute.

    Baja California, I have come to the conclusion that this is where the sun comes to refuel, where the wind purifies itself, where the waters draw their sparkle. I have spent countless days narcotized by the natural rhythms of this desert by the sea, and countless days watching the sun sink below the horizon and leave behind a thin fleece of clouds whose edges glow a brilliant orange. And, after many such sunsets, I finally began to understand the siren call of danger that is part of Baja's charm. Here, the beach is peppered with stone upon stone, some larger than Mayan pyramids, and more mysterious than Stonehenge. They have been sculpted and spanked by the wind and water into shapes resembling dolphins, praying Zen monks, and lovers in embrace. Worn to bulbous smoothness by eons of geological torture, these accidental skyscrapers of nature are spot-welded to the beach in perpetuity, constant reminders that the sea is the greatest sculptor of all.


It all began about four billion years ago, when there were no men, no women, no bikinis, and no sea, an inauspicious start for a journey that would culminate in paradise on earth. From a distant cove of intergalactic space, a fiery mass accelerated as it plummeted through the earth's atmosphere, then dug into the barren surface of a remote plain, raising a thick cloud of debris. Giant, jagged boulders shuddered from the impact of stone on stone and exploded into a shower of shards. Severed by the enormous impact, the thin, hot crust bled lava and ash, as winds swirled and eddied, driving rock against rock, smoothing rough edges, and grinding angular facets into granules of sand. And so it remained for hundreds of millions of years. Vagrant drifts swept across the monotonous flats, abrading the ragged edges of craters dug by comets that, over eons of geological torture, constantly punctured the rocky membrane of the young planet.

    releasing waters that since the very beginning of time had been locked in the depths. Rivulets dripped from crevices of granite and basalt, swelled into streams, and gathered into rivers that gouged out canyons on the way to budding seas. Rains began to pour, carrying sands to the sterile margins of infant oceans. Fingers of sand reached into the waters and sandbars took shape, dissolved, and then re-formed. The shore sands had no loyalty to the ocean, or to the earth. Whatever wind blew, whatever current streamed, the sands followed. Primeval storms assaulted emerging landmasses and blasted away at them until they lay in heaps of shingle and gravel at the feet of wave-washed cliffs. Ribbons of beach began to rim the shores.

    earth, waxed and waned, gathering the ocean waters into mighty, bulging tides that sucked in and spat out gray tongues of sand, an unending project of sculpting the profile of distant shores. The continents began to drift apart from their primordial oneness. The sands and muds that the rivers pumped into the oceans sedimented into long, sloping shelves. In their sun-warmed shallows, organic life began to incubate, until, about two billion years ago, bacteria and algae and fungi emerged. Photosynthetic bacteria set about making food out of the anoxygenic atmosphere of carbon dioxide, and in the process spewed enough oxygen to mantle the earth and percolate into the salinity of the oceans. Here, in the planet's uterine depths, multicellular animals with tissues and organs and byzantine anatomies emerged as trilobites and corals, mollusks and shelled creatures, whose intricate skeletons were eventually worn down into soft sands that, one day, would become the floor of paradise.

    of beach-polishing could begin. Flowering plants sprouted in sheltered, fertile pockets of the earth. Other flora clung to the precipitous slopes of monticules and the rocky high ground, sending roots into microscopic cracks and fissures, and, with the gentlest pressure relentlessly applied, pried the hard stone apart. Rain and melting snow sought out the crevices, slipped into them, and dug away at the crystalline bonds of rock. Like a cunning trio of jewel thieves, wind, water, and plant picked away at the basalt, granite, pumice, and quartz masses, which had been impregnable to the assault of wind alone. The weathering of rock accelerated. Sands crumbled down the wrinkled faces of cliffs, and began their laborious journey to the waters draining from mountains.

    promiscuously, finally began to hold fast, and trapped rocky debris that had been pushed along riverbeds. Obeying the strict calculus of gravity, sediment dropped out, the heaviest particles first, and, as the velocity of the torrent gradually diminished, the lightest of muds at the very end of the stream's journey as it debouched into the seas. Along the continental margins, a profusion of shelled organisms left behind calcareous shales and sandstones, and in the siliceous muds on the bottoms of deep seas, the skeletal remains of infinitesimal basket-shaped radiolarians piled up in layers of ooze. Multicellular sponges effloresced, died, and, battered by the infinite circling of wave waters, were pulverized into grains of pure silica.

    time, but their movements left undisturbed the harmonious menage a trois into which water, wind, and earth had settled. Like a worldly couple with a discreet paramour in the wings, water and earth played out their domestic power struggles, each first yielding ground, then taking back what it had surrendered, alternately provoked and soothed by the wind. Of course, there were conflicts, nasty ones. The margins of the oceans and seas bore marks of tender encounters and tumultuous collisions in gently sloping beaches; in pebbled shelves overstrewn with rubble; and in the bouldery ruins of vertiginous cliffs pounded and lashed by the fury of wind and water.

    in earnest. Dazzled, terrified, and stymied by the great power of the three elements, man warily hung back from the shores, which expanded and receded without regard for his feeble structures and territorial markings. If he came to the beach at all, it was because hunger, lust for power, or greed lured him there, for only the most urgent drives could counter the terror with which primal man was surely filled at the sight of the sea rising up in murderous waves. All the destructive powers of the universe seemed to be bound up in that treacherous liquid medium, which left the earth battered, bruised, and littered with the stinking corpses of sea monsters and the stench of rotting kelp.

    discovered fire, tools, iron; built shelters; contrived boats; and ventured across the seas. Some even domesticated the gentler shores of mild, inland seas and the docile sands of tropical isles, and took a measure of delight in bathing in the surf and basking in the sun. Finally, in 1736, all the microscopic developments of what we call culture and modern civilization came together in an Englishman's whim to open a bathing establishment in the little town of Scarborough, northeast of York. There, a rough, gray smear of shale traced the far reach of high tide. For centuries, the Picts, the Celts, and then the Saxons limped across the shingle to draw in their fishing boats, or dragged skiffs out into the angry sea to make a crossing to the Continent. Now sounds of laughter and merriment reverberated against the white sandstone cliffs as the beach was suddenly transformed into a gateway of health and relaxation. The full, if still-rough, tally of distant lands and shores had just been made by an intrepid fraternity of explorers, and the charts of the seas hastily sketched out. But the beach that was each seawashed country's hostile and barely functional backyard would gradually be claimed as habitable new terrain--the setting for a new garden of earthly delights.

    consider the beach a place for threshold experiences, where they could study the very soul of Nature and learn from her the riddle of their own. On remote peninsulas where the fury of two oceans erupted in the ceaseless combat of colliding swells, the Romantics would see eddies, tides, and clandestine currents moving into and out of each other like lovers at passion's high tide.

    sand, protected from the sun by chemical screens, garbed in fibers that shed water more efficiently than sealskin, men and women ponder the tides, smell breezes at the ocean's edge, and absorb melanizing radiation from their private star millions of miles away. At night, they gaze at the silvery point flares of meteors and comets streaking across the sky, and speculate about that distant time, four billion years ago, when the earth was still young and turbulent, and battered by vagrant asteroids, long before the Sea of Eden was born.

The beach is not so much a distinct place as it is a set of relations among four elements: earth, water, wind, and sun. Partnered in an endless dance, these elements produce a staggering range of beaches, each subject to constant change, sometimes rhythmical and cyclical, sometimes linear and catastrophic. If there is a single invariant played out on the boundary of land and sea, it is contained in the paradox of ceaseless metamorphoses, in the idea of immutable mutability. Minute by minute, hour by hour, each of the four constituents submits to the action of the others, and each, in turn, bends the others to its influence,

    animals than any other human of his day, still marveled when he looked into the depths of the sea. "Our meadows and the forests of the earth we dwell upon," he said, "appear desert and void as compared to those of the sea." Even more remarkable, this prodigious productivity is accompanied by playfulness, by a seemingly aesthetic mimicry that cannot be reduced to mere utility in the service of survival and adaptation.

    of stony vegetation or marine flowers. The alcyonium, the Proteus of the sea, is at one moment an animal, at another a fruit. The fertile sea bottom reveals itself to us as an exquisite parallel universe. Looking down upon the reefs of the Pacific, one sees a green carpet of tubiporas, astreas, and brightly colored meandrinae and cariophyllae, swiftly vibrating their rich golden stamina. Majestic gorgonians and the less lofty isis undulate over them like the willows and aspens and climbing plants of our own forests. The plumaria sends out its spirals from one submarine tree to another. And there is still another, more deeply hidden world within this one. Mollusks drag their shells of pearly luster along the submarine labyrinths. Crabs run here and there. Strange fish of golden, turquoise, and yellow hues rove tranquilly about. Purple- and violet-colored annelids alternately roll up and stretch forth their delicate and fragile arms to the descending sunbeams.

"Sand," Rachel Carson tells us, "is a substance that is beautiful, mysterious, and infinitely variable, each grain on a beach is the result of processes that go back into the shadowy beginnings of life, or the earth itself." There is nothing particularly striking about a grain of sand, unless, of course, you have the misfortune of having one blow into your eye. Then the speck that seems so benign and innocuous reveals its true character as a descendant of the great rocks of the world. But to sedimentologists, geologists, and paleogeographers, the size, shape, roundness, surface texture, and composition of a single grain of sand tell the story of forces that pried it from its matrix and brought it to the shore. If one sifts through a handful of sand, and looks closely at the grains, it is possible to detect many individual shapes, sizes, and colors; these variations are even more dramatic if samples come from different beaches. Some grains are almost perfectly round and smooth, others jagged, rough, and irregular in texture and shape. Light-colored, nearly spherical sand is composed almost entirely of quartz, a common mineral from which the earth's crust is compounded. In contrast, dark sands are made up of volcanic particles and complex silicates that were spewed up from deep within the earth's core.

    years old. These fragments can be seen as the original "silicon chip," acid-etched with the story of the rise and fall of mountains, rivers, deserts, and creatures. Lilliputian messengers from the depths of geologic time, grains of sand are the bridge between past and present--the last, hardy survivors of distant islands, deltas, cliffs, mountains, and long-lost landforms. Buffeted by wind, leached by rain, bleached bone-dry by the sun, sands are also made up of the carbonate skeletons of creatures from the tepid tropical seas, and in this respect are geological cartes de visite from obscure worlds beneath the waves.

    millimeters--and sometimes even five millimeters--in diameter, sand is smaller than gravel but larger than silt or clay. The rich tonal variations and range of shapes emerge fully only under a microscope, where sands reveal themselves as pointed and bulbous rays exploding from pillow-shaped centers; creamy lozenges; shiny ball bearings; jagged, striated, and pitted flakes; glossy disks and striped cigars; spheres as bumpy as Trix cereal; shriveled red chiles of volcanic lavas; and crystalline green jelly beans bursting with glauconite from the ocean floor.

    break down through either mechanical or chemical weathering, becoming smaller and smaller as they are pounded by the hydraulic or pneumatic pressure of waves. They are pried apart by ice exerting thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch, or split by the insistent probing and prying of plant roots. Heated by lightning or fire, rocks expand until they break off in chips and flakes. Or, through involved chemical processes, minerals and chemicals within the rocks-gradually decompose, and the rock literally decays as if it were an organic substance. The size of each resulting grain is determined by the kinetic intensity of the medium that transported and deposited it. A strong current or a powerful wind, for instance, tends to carry larger particles greater distances. The smoothness or the jaggedness depends on the degree of abrasion during transport. The rounder the sand, the longer it has been weathered by wind or water. By contrast, ragged grains have either not traveled far or been cushioned in their journey by an envelope of mud.

    half the story. The other half involves the consolidation of sands into rock during the vast intervals of geological time. The rock of ages, as it turns out, is impervious to time only in our minds. Sand that once was rock becomes rock once again as it slowly sediments and compresses into layers of sandstone, which, in turn, transmute into sand. Standing on a cliff overlooking a raging sea, we watch waves hurl themselves against the shore, scooping up cobbles at the base of the cliff and lofting them into the crown of seething foam. Then the wave retreats, hauling its load of stone along the sea bottom, until the next swell rushes in to repeat, relentlessly, the work of breaking, grinding, polishing.

    and shell fragments, from conches, clams, mussels, scallops, shellfish, corals, fish, and even microscopic plankton. Most of the fabled white beaches of the world are in fact the burial mounds of such sea life. Radiocarbon dating shows that the sand of Miami Beach, for example, is on average thirteen thousand years old, with some material over thirty thousand years old. So, as we dig our toes into the soft shell sands, we quite literally burrow deep into antiquity.

    many colors--tan, yellow, white, pink, purple, red, blue, green, gray, and black. The precise shade of each grain depends on the rock or organism from which it came. To a great degree, color alone can identify the origin of a beach with reasonable accuracy. Armed with a strong hand-lens, an experienced geologist can readily distinguish between translucent, light-colored grains of quartz and brown, dullish feldspar, and then link these properties to the geological history of a specific beach type.

    whitish beach sands of the Northeastern United States are mainly mineral in origin. As one moves farther south--to North Carolina, let's say--the sand begins to take on the pinkish and pale-yellow hues of crushed seashells. Florida's eastern flank is rimmed with coarse grains of quartz, but the tip and the western shore are covered with sand the color and feel of uncooked semolina. Along the Gulf Coast, the fine-textured beaches blend the rosaceous tint of pulverized shrimp and conch with the white, yellow, and orange colors of minerals--copper, calcium, and quartz--carried there by rivers from the Appalachian highlands and the Great Plains.

    a flashy, south-of-the-border exuberance characterized by the paintbox tints of tropical seas. The brilliant white of Bahamian beaches is derived from the precipitated oolites or calcium-carbonate coating on bits of coral and whelk. Bermuda's pink sands blush with the calcite of limestone, coral, and shell. The gray sands of St. Lucia's southwestern rim, on St. Kitts, Saba, and Domenica--all in the Caribbean--bespeak a volcanic origin. In fact, the mixture of vanilla-colored shell and coral beaches and dusky volcanic sands is a formula repeated throughout the tropics. This pangeological recipe is evident in the golden coral beaches of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the mauve-and-purple sands of Fiji's Taveuni Island, and in Queensland's kaleidoscopic blends of ground-up shells from the Coral Sea. The striking hues of Hawaii's shores--the olivine green of Papa-kolea Beach, the cinder-cone red at Hoku-'ula, and the jet black of Polulu Beach--also derive from volcanic eruptions, rather than decomposing sea life.

    beach sand fades in vibrancy. On the eastern coast of England, the pockets of sand deposited among the shingle are, like the rock from which they have eroded, light gray. By contrast, the northern coast takes on an almost honeyed hue. Along the northeastern coast of Wales, the golden beaches have a faintly rosy cast. All along the Baltic, the dunes and berms are a soft tan. Mediterranean beaches--the Costas del Sol, Calida, Blanca, Dorada and Brava, as well as the strands on deltas of the rivers Rhone, Arno, Po, and Brenta--range from puce to whitish gray, reflecting the tints of clay, mud, and river sand transported from deep inland. Up and down the Cote d'Azur, along Italy's southern coast, and on the shores of Alexandria, the pale sand flashes an occasional grain of marble, glass, or alabaster that centuries ago was part of some ancient Roman villa. By and large, the meager sands of Mallorca, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Cyprus--and of other islands in the Adriatic and the Aegean--are coarse, lacking the sustained buffeting of rough winds and waters.

    California, the beaches still sparkle with coarse-grained sand colored the buff of desert rock, the white of marlin bones, and the burnt sienna of weathered coral. But along the beaches of the Pacific Northwest, tan and gray predominate. Descended from basalt cliffs that were extruded as sea-floor lavas several million years ago, these sands glisten like oil slicks when wet. The brownish specks scattered among them come from the quartz and feldspar of granites that were spot-welded to the Rocky Mountains of the North American continent, and then spilled down the tributaries of the Columbia River, before draining into the Pacific. Other mighty rivers--the Orinoco, the Amazon, and Argentina's Colorado--enrich ocean sands with grains of gold, platinum, and uranium, to which is added the glint of garnets and emeralds.

    neither useful nor threatening, but aesthetic. These sands "sing" and "bark," as though they were endowed with vocal cords, although in this instance the musical sounds are produced by the gentle friction of grain against grain. In Kauai, Hawaii, a golden knot of windblown dunes in the shadow of the opal-tinted cliffs of Polihale produce cries in various cadences. In the wind, they rustle like silk; when someone slides down them, they bark like dogs.

    through the literature of explorers and travelers for over a thousand years, posing the riddle of their vocalization. Some say the sound is produced by the friction of sand against sand that has been coated with dried salt, much as the violin's melody is produced by the action of resin on the bow. Others speculate that the thin layers of gas which are released between the grains act as percussive cushions capable of considerable vibration and tone production.

    and Wales. On the Isle of Eigg, in the Hebrides, the snowy sand at the base of sandstone cliffs gives off an eerie whining. The sands of Oregon's Florence Beach squeak with the high-pitched bark of distant chihuahas. But perhaps the most fabled of these are commemorated in the Arabian Nights, which lauds the weird beauty of the sands skirting the Mountain of the Bell, the Jebel Nagous of the Isthmus of Suez. When whipped up by storm winds, these sands chant and groan like deep organ notes; on calm days, they tinkle like bells.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Foreword xiii
Introduction xix
CHAPTER 1: No Man and the Sea 1
CHAPTER 2: The Beach of Antiquity 25
CHAPTER 3: Poised for the Plunge 45
CHAPTER 4. Revolution on the Beach 70
CHAPTER 5: Spirituality and Romance Come to the Beach 93
CHAPTER 6: The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeois Beach 113
CHAPTER 7: The Pleasure Beach 139
CHAPTER 8: Swimmingly at the Beach 172
CHAPTER 9: Sun on the Beach 196
CHAPTER 10: Engineering Paradise 223
CHAPTER 11: Castaways 246
CHAPTER 12: Paradise Found (and Lost) 267
Paradises by the Sea 289
Bibliography 293
Index 305
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